The human cost of Theresa May’s student deportation programme

It's been just over a week since the damning legal ruling on the Home Office's student deportation programme and the full details of the department's behaviour are starting to become clear.

The picture painted by those affected is one of a department out of control. It tried to remove parents from their children. It deported families. It sent multiple vans full of immigration officers to people's homes in dawn raids, before separating the husbands from the wives and sending them to detention centres. It sent immigration squads to higher education colleges to threaten students and pore over the most minute details, including individual attendance rates. It tarnished the reputation of a civil servant in her workplace. And it did all this with no evidence at all, except the hearsay testimony of one of its own officials.

The story began in early 2014, when Panorama showed a report demonstrating fraud in a language test college in London. Non-European migrants have to take the test to qualify for a visa to the UK and it’s clear that this one institution, at least, was using proxy test-takers.

But instead of prosecuting those involved and starting an investigation into other schools which might be suspected of wrong doing, the Home Office proceeded on the assumption that everyone nationwide who had done the government-recommended TOEIC test had committed fraud. Its evidence for this was a report by a Home Office official of a single conversation with a member of staff at American firm ETS, who ran the test. On the basis of this flimsiest of evidence, it is thought to have deported tens of thousands of people.

Home Office officials started doing unannounced spot-checks of any school accredited with ETS, regardless of whether they were actually doing the tests.

"Us and all our neighbouring colleges were spot checked," the managing director of a prestigious higher education college tells me. He wishes to remain anonymous, because he fears retribution from the Home Office for himself or his college if his name becomes public.

"They basically take over the school. They want to see certain students, they want to see records of attendance. They wanted any student with any connection to ETS whatsoever. We sat with them for two days walking through policies."

The Home Office interrogation was extremely detailed. "They were testing us," he says. "'What did you do with this student? This student's attendance is down five per cent, what did you do about it?' These were extremely aggressive spot checks. Students were really put through the mill.

"It's the arbitrary and intimidatory aspect of it. They've done nothing wrong. They tried to follow the rules as best they could. They were treated like criminals."

The suspicion among those working at the colleges was that the Panorama report had given the Home Office an excuse to begin a mass deportation programme of students. The department was tasked by the prime minister with reducing immigration significantly, but it could do nothing to control European immigration, so instead it leveraged the Panorama report to reduce student numbers instead.

"No-one argues that there were cases of abuse," the managing director says. "That is a fact. But what they've done is taken that case and extrapolated that across the whole sector on the working assumption you're guilty until proven innocent."

While the schools were being raided, families were being threatened with separation.

When the Panorama report was shown, one British wife and her husband were applying for further leave to remain as a spouse. She also wishes to remain anonymous, for the same reasons. The couple expected the application to be a formality. Her husband has already been granted leave once. They were married with a child. She had a respectable career in the civil service.

"The irony of all this is that we watched that Panorama documentary," she says. "We were shocked at how people get away with this sort of thing. We had no idea it would affect us."

But the application was rejected. The husband had taken a TOEIC test, so he was automatically branded a liar and a fraud. As with all these cases, the 'evidence' cited in the rejection amounted to the hearsay witness testimony from Home Office officials which was torn apart by the Upper Tribunal last week. There was, to all intents and purposes, no evidence whatsoever that the husband had committed fraud.

The family were startled and upset. But one sentence, towards the end of the rejection letter, sent a shiver down their spine.

"This action gives rise to considerations of such weight as to justify separation from your child."

For this young family, it was a terrifying moment. "I still have nightmares of what would happen if my husband wasn't around," she says.

"My in-laws are in Bangladesh. My parents live nowhere near me. I work full time. If he left the country I’d have to resign from my job and claim full time benefits. The only way to look after my child would be to give up my life. Even reading that sentence now is giving me a headache."

But things didn't end there. Instead of just focusing on the husband, the Home Office also targeted the wife. They approached her bosses in the government department she worked in and started asking questions about her. She was called in at work to answer questions about the language tests.

"They questioned my integrity," she says. "They're hounding people for no reason whatsoever."

The family is still waiting on the appeal, which is likely to be successful given the legal ruling last week. But in the meantime her husband cannot work, as the Home Office has kept his passport. "I know others have it worse, but it affected us mentally," she says. "It put a strain on our marriage. It's something we shouldn't have been accused of in the first place.

"It doesn't matter what the outcome is. The fact we've been accused in the first place is a marker on our reputation. It'll shadow me for my entire career." She goes quiet for a moment, then says, softly: "They threatened to separate us from our child."

Others are even less lucky. One Indian family, who spoke to just ahead of being forced out of Britain by the fraud accusations, have now been back in India for 18 months while they pursue their appeal out of the country.

"It was a really hard time for me," Hardik Shah, the husband of Sejal, who was accused of fraud, says down the phone from Guajrat. "I got used to the British lifestyle. It's really different in India."

People ask him why the family have returned, but he is too embarrassed to tell them. "I said it only to my family members," he says. "I didn't want to disclose what happened to me. People's mentality is that maybe these people did something wrong. But we know we didn't do anything wrong."

The appeal was originally expected to last just a few months, so the family didn’t look for work. But, as these things tend to do, it was several months later that it was heard.

"I haven't got an income," Shah says. "There's no source of money. Whatever I had, I used. I used all the savings. It's tough for me. It's a really bad time for us."

Last December, over a year since they were forced out of their jobs and their home in Britain, the courts found in the family's favour. It's hardly surprising. Shah's wife had completed a degree in the University of Wales in English. She had an existing language test from 2010 which she had used to apply for that degree. She didn't even need to do the TOEIC test. She'd only taken it to firm up her application.

As in the Upper Tribunal ruling, the court found the Home Office had provided no evidence worthy of serious consideration for the accusation of fraud.

"There is no evidence outlining the basis for the decision arrived at by ETS, or indeed the respondent [the Home Office]," the judge found. "There is no evidence of this issue to support the assertions made in the refusal letter. These assertions cannot amount to evidence and consequently, I cannot place any weight upon them."

His wife's evidence was considered much more robust. "It is unlikely that the appellant would have successfully completed her degree without being reasonably competent in English," the judge found. He also cited her English language test from 2010. "Taken together," he concluded, "this evidence carries sufficient weight to support the appellant's position that she spoke English to a sufficiently good standard such that she had no need to employ a proxy."

Despite all they've been through, the family still have a remarkably forgiving attitude towards the Home Office.

"I am not against the Home Office," Shah says. "I'm not against anyone. I'm fighting for us, I'm fighting for those other people also removed from the UK."

But regardless of how forgiving the family is, the case raises serious questions about the behaviour of Theresa May and the department she runs. This is a scandal on an extraordinary scale, with the Home Office using hearsay evidence to destroy the lives and reputations of tens of thousands of innocent people. Even with the legal ruling last week, many of them are still trying to put back the pieces.